October 17, 2012
I'll make one final point that came out of my time at the Third Coast International Audio Festival, which took place two weekends ago in Evanston.
I came away with the feeling that daily radio news has acquired a bit of a bad rap, and I think that's a shame. I didn't attend Ira Glass's session on the Friday night (insert gasp here). I was possibly the only person present who decided she was too tired to listen to Ira (first, I have heard him speak before and to be honest, I'm also a little tired of the audio cults that build up around hosts like him and Jad Abumrad, even though I admire their work). I heard afterwards that in one comment he was a little dismissive of daily news. If that's inaccurate, please correct me, because after all I did not hear this with my own ears. But daily news came up in other contexts at the conference as being something rather dull than we all have to plod through as part of our jobs, when we'd rather be making the next Radiolab or This American Life story. As at least one person pointed out in a comment on my previous post about public radio pay, the reason so many people are interested in working in public radio today is shows like TAL and Radiolab - shows that tell unusual stories often in surprising, creative ways. Long live such shows. But for many listeners, public raido is a place they come for reliable information - that is, local and international news. So I was rather surprised when on the way home from the conference I read this piece in Current in which Adam Ragusea of Radio Macon in Georgia is quoted as saying, "I hate daily news".
[See Adam's note below - clearly I took this quote out of context and hating daily news means something entirely different than what I took it to mean. Thanks to Adam for this clarification. He does NOT hate daily news.]
Back to the conference. Daily news - what's going on in our towns, cities and the wider world - affects people's lives. Maybe I'm just feeling nostalgic because news spots were such a big part of life at Marketplace. I must have filed close to two thousand of them over the years I worked there. But spots and short features are great instruments through which to hone your writing, and you learn so much doing them. I'm no longer even in the business of daily news but I still listen and appreciate those spots, packed with information. It takes skill to pull those off.
I loved Robert Smith's Third Coast session on how to write creatively while on deadline. But daily news's increasing unfashionableness seems a little strange given the business many public radio reporters and producers are in. Not to mention the reason listeners tune in. The vast majority do so each day to get the news, and they'll grab at least some of that from the top-of-the hour newscasts with their dreaded 45 second spots. One reporter I met at Third Coast who corresponded with me afterwards told me that at her grad school, Berkeley, her class wasn't even taught to write a spot 'because it was assumed no one wanted to write spots'. But spots make up much of the work you'll do if you land a job, permanent or temporary, in a newsroom.
By all means let's keep listening to and admiring the stories the creative guys (and they are mostly guys) put out. Not that the rest of us can't be or aren't creative in what we do, of course. But the vast majority of people who listen to public radio each day are listening for news. When I worked the early shift at Marketplace I used to get quite a thrill out of being the person to bring that news to people first thing in the morning, even if I had to do so in a spot of less than a minute or a super-short two-way with the host. We should work as hard as we can to make our writing as sharp and pithy as possible in short news stories. But let's show a bit of respect for the very thing that brought many of us into public radio in the first place, and the reason most people listen.